Why oncology experts are pushing for more diversity in cancer clinical trials 

Doctor with inpatient
Cancer experts are urging researchers to include more diverse participants in clinical trials. (Getty/Ridofranz)

Precision medicine holds significant promise for cancer care but may be out of reach for minority populations due to a lack of diversity among participants in clinical trials. 

That's why cancer research nonprofit Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) recently launched a new committee led by oncology experts to push for more equitable representation in research for new cancer treatments. 

Edith Perez, M.D., an oncologist with Mayo Clinic and the chairperson of Committee for Health Equity in Cancer Clinical Trials, told Fierce Healthcare that the lack of participants of color in clinical trials prevents researchers from getting the full picture of how socioeconomic factors impact their health outcomes, which are often worse than white patients. 

The lack of comprehensive data limits the benefits of highly touted technology like artificial intelligence to a largely white patient population, she said. 

“We can do a lot of artificial intelligence work but we’re not including data on all populations who are impacted by cancer,” Perez said. 

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Sung Poblete, CEO of SU2C, told Fierce Healthcare that data from the Food and Drug Administration suggests that just 4% of clinical trial participants are black, while another 4% are Hispanic. 

Meanwhile, minorities who are diagnosed with cancer often have the lowest survival rates for most types of the disease, she said. 

But identifying this problem doesn’t mean it’s easy to expand the participant base for clinical trials, she said. And that’s why one of the committee’s key focuses is providing procurement language to assist researchers in diversifying their trial participants. 

SU2C will also require grant applications to include a letter of support from the lead research institution’s chief diversity officer and detailed recruitment plans. The research must also address which populations the analysts believe will most benefit from the treatments. 

“We all realize that bringing in a diverse patient population to the clinical trials arena is complex,” Poblete said. 

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Perez said the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also disproportionately impacting communities of color, highlights further the need to focus on diversity on research. For example, some viruses are linked to a greater risk of developing cancer—researchers should have a better idea of how that plays out among diverse patient populations, she said. 

Researchers also need to be armed with data on how to best protect different groups of cancer patients from threats like COVID-19, she said. And there need to be doors open to communities of color to ensure they continue to seek cancer care that they need during the pandemic. 

“This is going to provide us with even more incentive to continue education for all patients,” she said.